The NCAA men’s basketball tournament sits in the center of the aisle. In a country fiercely divided by politics, Americans can come together to collectively throw our hands up for buzzer beaters and, to the chagrin of employers nationwide, give in to the madness for the next three weeks. Almost every corner of the nation is represented in the field. Here’s how the pieces fit together.
Overflowing trophy cases and brand-name coaches breed fans who feel entitled to title runs.
Duke: Sophomore Luke Kennard is an indefatigable scorer for the ACC Tournament champs, but Duke’s postseason potential rides on 6-foot-8 freshman Jayson Tatum.
UCLA: Paced by freshman passing prodigy Lonzo Ball, the Bruins lead the country in points (90.4) and assists (21.5) per game. If a clutch shot is required, watch senior Bryce Alford, who now holds the UCLA record for 3-pointers (320).
Gonzaga: The tiny Catholic school in Spokane, Wash., has a berth for the 19th year in a row but has never made the Final Four. It’s the No. 1 team in the rankings of analytics guru Ken Pomeroy and has five players who stand at least 6 feet 10, including 7-1, 300-pound Polish big man Przemek Karnowski.
Others: Villanova, UNC, Oregon
Basketball is even more vital to the cultural landscape the farther you get from the coastal power centers.
Butler: Junior forward Kelan Martin and the Bulldogs are 4-0 against teams rated in the top 25 in RPI, including two wins over Villanova, but they have some head-scratching losses (St. John’s, Georgetown, Indiana State).
Iowa State: PG Monte Morris averaged 17.5 points and five assists in the Big 12 tournament en route to MVP honors. He’s one of four senior guards who start for a Cyclones team that won at Kansas and is 6-1 in neutral-site games.
Louisville: The Cardinals had the second-toughest schedule according to ESPN with impressive wins over Kentucky, Purdue and Wichita State. Sudanese-Australian sophomore Deng Adel is a human highlight reel.
Others: Kansas, Kentucky, Purdue
They flirt with fame, melt hearts, bust brackets and make March great. Everyone loves a Cinderella.
Northwestern: The Wildcats (23-11) set a school record for wins before earning their first NCAA berth in history. They’ve beaten Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland. Can they be more than a sideshow?
Middle Tennessee: This year’s Conference USA champs upset Michigan State last year, have a solid RPI (35) and are 6-0 at neutral sites. Nine players are juniors or seniors, and forward JaCorey Williams averages 17.3 points per game.
Seton Hall: The Pirates proved they can hang in the Big East with wins over Providence, Creighton and Marquette and a recent two-point loss to Villanova. Junior forward Angel Delgado leads the country in rebounds, averaging
13.1 per game.
Others: Vermont, Princeton
The hoops history is rich in the states surrounding the District.
Virginia: The Cavaliers have the No. 1 scoring defense and went through the fourth-strongest schedule, according to ESPN. But a sputtering offense could be fatal. To go far, they need freshman Kyle Guy to shoot often and accurately.
Maryland: After a 20-2 start, the best start in school history, Maryland was exposed late in Big Ten play. Melo Trimble can’t play the hero if the team isn’t good enough to get him to crunch time.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies are in the tournament for the first time in a decade, but depth is a concern. Seniors Zach LeDay and Seth Allen provide an inside-outside threat.
VCU: The Rams’ RPI (19) is one behind Virginia. Their seven straight NCAA Tournament berths represent the longest active run in this regional group.